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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Higher ed facing lower funding

Lawmakers, universities ponder budget cuts


SEATTLE – Officials from Washington’s four-year universities traveled to Olympia on Friday to present a puzzle to lawmakers: How can the state continue to fulfill the promises it has made to students while cutting the budget that creates opportunities for them to go to college?

From the University of Washington to Eastern Washington, the officials all promised to focus budget cuts in a way that hurts students the least and to continue to grow their enrollment as long as they can manage.

But they also said there’s a limit to how much they can do.

One admissions director even choked up a little while talking about the current and future students she meets. She worries that her school won’t be able to fulfill the commitment it has made to the kids it has counseled since grade school that if they work hard enough there will be a place for them at the university.

“As a state, we’ve told them ‘We believe in you,’ ” said Karen Copetas, admissions director at Western Washington University.

She said the success of outreach programs to low-income students shows in the piles of applications the university will be sorting through to pick next year’s students. All the universities reported application numbers are up this year.

Both senators and university officials expressed concern about what impact the state’s expected budget deficit of nearly $6 billion will have on university enrollment in the next biennium.

The state budget includes money for a certain number of enrollment slots at each state university. The universities get the rest of the dollars they need from tuition and private donations.

Most of the time, Washington’s four-year schools enroll more students than the state budget supports, in part because it’s difficult to accurately estimate how many students accepted to a school will actually enroll.

Over-enrollment, plus budget cuts the governor ordered last year, forced the University of Washington to decide last week not to enroll any new students for spring quarter.

Gov. Chris Gregoire’s proposed state budget for 2009-’11 calls for a cut of 12 percent to 13 percent for every four-year university. She also included a 7 percent tuition increase in her budget.

Lawmakers are now having their own discussions about the expected state deficit and where to cut spending.

“Thank you for taking on the challenge of having visionary leadership,” Copetas told the Senate Higher Education and Workforce Development Committee. “We’re all counting on you.”

Sen. Paull Shin, D-Edmonds, said Copetas’ remarks also brought tears to his eyes and made him remember his arrival in this country as a teenage immigrant who didn’t even know the English alphabet. Shin said his adopted father told him he believed in him and that led to his success.

Wayne Quirk, provost at Central Washington University, said his school is trying to be as creative as possible in cutting costs while continuing to increase enrollment.

Central students are given the support they need to get their degrees quickly, are taking courses online and on television and about 700 high school students in Central Washington are taking CWU classes at their own schools through the university’s “Cornerstone” program.

One of the budget cuts the University of Washington is making – in addition to following the statewide government hiring freeze – is cutting teaching assistants. That means the university has to cut the number of sections it offers for each course and that will impact students competing to get in required courses.

The university will continue to serve its current students and to keep growing enrollment for the time being, but two to three years from now, things will likely change, said Doug Wadden, UW executive vice provost for academic affairs and planning.

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